Sunday, April 22, 2012

NFL Road Trip 2012


The NFL schedule came out a few days ago and it was a bit disappointing for me. In all but the last two weeks there are Thursday night games (well, the season opener is on a Wednesday if you want to be pedantic), which makes a road trip much easier to plan than it was before. Whereas in past years it would take a few hours to come up with a viable route, this year it took about 30 minutes. The following road trip might not be optimal, and naturally I'm not taking it as I'm moving to Singapore in August, but for what it's worth, here is a trip that takes you to all 32 stadiums (yes the Giants and Jets play at the same place but the experience is different).

Sep 5  Dallas at NY Giants
Sep 9  Buffalo at NY Jets
Sep 10 Cincinnati at Baltimore
Sep 13 Chicago at Green Bay
Sep 17 Denver at Atlanta
Sep 20 NY Giants at Carolina
Sep 23 NY Jets at Miami
Sep 30 Tennessee at Houston
Oct 1  Chicago at Dallas
Oct 4  Arizona at St. Louis
Oct 7  Baltimore at Kansas City
Oct 14 New England at Arizona
Oct 15 Denver at San Diego
Oct 18 Seattle at San Francisco
Oct 21 Jacksonville at Oakland
Oct 25 Tampa Bay at Minnesota
Oct 28 Carolina at Chicago
Nov 4  Chicago at Tennessee
Nov 5  Philadelphia at New Orleans
Nov 8  Indianapolis at Jacksonville
Nov 11 San Diego at Tampa Bay
Nov 15 Miami at Buffalo
Nov 18 Baltimore at Pittsburgh
Nov 22 Houston at Detroit
Nov 25 Buffalo at Indianapolis
Nov 26 Carolina at Philadelphia
Dec 3  NY Giants at Washington
Dec 9  Dallas at Cincinnati
Dec 10 Houston at New England
Dec 16 Washington at Cleveland
Dec 23 Cleveland at Denver
Dec 30 St. Louis at Seattle

You could flip those last two depending on where you wanted to spend Christmas and New Year's as Seattle hosts the 49ers on the 23rd and KC visits Denver on the 30th.

In the past, the typical trip requires about 28,000 miles of driving; this one is somewhat shorter at just 25,000, assuming Toronto as a start and end point. I'm also ignoring practical problems such as driving from Denver to Seattle in the winter, which might cause some difficulties. Some of the drives are quite long, with about 20 days having a journey of greater than 500 miles so it's not something that I'd want to do alone. It would not surprise me if someone did a trip this year though as the additional midweek games make it pretty easy.

Best,

Sean

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Fukuoka Softbank Hawks 2 at Chunichi Dragons 1 (Western League) - April 20, 2012


After enjoying the Dragons' victory over the Giants on Thursday night, I awoke Friday in time to head to Nagoya Stadium to see the minor league team taking on the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

When I left the hotel it was drizzling but by the time I reached the ballpark, it had turned into a steady shower. I've been at other games where the same amount of rain led to a delay or postponement and wasn't expecting them to play. I was told that if the game was called, I could get my money back, so I bought a ticket for 1,000 yen and entered the ballpark.

Nagoya Stadium

Located just one stop away from Nagoya Station at Otobashi, this ballpark was built in 1948 and hosted the big-league Dragons from then until 1996, when they moved into the Nagoya Dome. The stadium was renovated with most of the 35,000 seats being removed and training facilities added so that the minor league team could use the facility.



The stadium was the site of a fire that broke out during a game in August 1951. Three fans were killed and 68 seriously injured when a cigarette was dropped into a paper dumpster in the wooden bleachers behind home plate. The stadium was destroyed and was rebuilt using concrete and steel in time for the 1952 season.



The ballpark is visible from the Shinkansen (passing by on the left in the picture above). There is a concourse and a small concession that offers "bari-soba" a hard noodle covered with sauce and the best ballpark food I've had in a while.

If you want foul balls, this is the best place to be as there are seats all the way down the lines that are practically empty. I saw one guy collect four or five foul balls during the game just because he was the only person in his section.

As far as Japanese minor league parks go, this is the best one I've seen. I just hope that next time I go the weather will be a bit better.

The Game

When the starting lineups were announced, I was surprised to hear Henry Blanco's name as the starting first baseman for the Dragons. A four-year veteran in the NPB, he was the Central League's HR and RBI leader in 2009. He was injured last year and has struggled early on this season so he was sent down to work out the kinks.



The Hawks started an ikusei pitcher who lasted only 2 innings before Angel Castro (below) came on in relief. The 29-year-old Dominican pitched 4 scoreless frames, striking out three. Meanwhile Chunichi starter Yudai Ohno threw six shutout innings as the rain was clearly affecting the batters more than the pitchers.



Finally, in the top of the 8th the Hawks mounted a rally off a pair of relievers. With runners on second and third, Kenta Nakanishi singled to score the first run of the game and Yuki Yanagita followed with a sacrifice fly for some insurance.

In the bottom of the 9th, Akihiro Yanase came on to close things out. He's been with the team since 2006 but is struggling to return from an injury suffered in 2009. He didn't do so well here, giving up two singles and two walks leading to a run. I was in fear of extra innings as I had to catch a train back to Tokyo, but Yanase got Atsushi Fujii to fly out to end the game. Despite the low score, the game took 3:13 and I just made it back to Nagoya for the 4:30 train home.



Notes

This is the second Western League game I have seen and Chunichi has been the home team both times. The other game was in Hiroshima where they made up a rainout from Nagoya.

Next Up


Thus ends my sports-watching time in Japan. There are no other games that I'll see before I leave here in two weeks. I'll post here on occasion over the next month but generally it will be quiet until I head home in mid-May. Check back then to see what's happening.

Best,

Sean


Friday, April 20, 2012

Yomiuri Giants 1 at Chunichi Dragons 4 - April 19, 2012





The Chunichi Dragons are a long-standing team in Japanese baseball, having begun play in 1936. They used to host games at Nagoya Stadium, an outdoor field constructed in 1948, but the Nagoya Dome opened in 1997 and the Dragons moved in, relegating their old grounds to the minor league squad. Despite nearly 70 years of existence, the Dragons have only won two Japan Series, the most recent in 2007. Lately though, they have been the strongest team in the Central League, taking 5 of the last 8 pennants.

Nagoya Dome



When I first visited the Nagoya Dome when it opened in 1997, there was no convenient station close by. That changed in 2000 when the Nagoya Dome Mae - Yada subway stop was opened. It seems to be part of the stadium itself with dozens of old Dragons' photos as well as a shot of each player on the current roster. Because this walkway is crowded before and after games it is tough to stop and look at everything on display but if you can get there a few hours before the game, it should be easier to enjoy.



The dome is quite nice from the outside, its silver geodesic dome shining in the sunlight. There are a couple of restaurants outside one of the gates but I would avoid these and go inside where there is more to see and do. Take note of the roof which has been double glazed to allow natural light through. Each section on the roof can be individually shaded which allows for intricate patterns to be displayed, although this doesn't happen during the game.



There are five seating levels, each painted a different colour. Sitting down low is more expensive and the view is blocked by the screen all the way down the lines, so I chose the cheaper upper deck seat at 2,500 yen. Even this was not optimal as the people in the first row lean over the ledge and block your view from time to time, and it was rather cramped as well. I did notice that the seats in the lower bowl don't face home plate forcing those fans to spend the game with their bodies turned sideways.



The outfield seats are actually reserved unlike most other ballparks here. The view is not bad as you are well above the field as you can see below.



There are some other special seating areas including the Prime Twin, a pair of seats meant for couples, as well as Prime Box, where four fans can sit together at a table. Above the outfield seats is Arenaview, a restaurant that offers a panoramic view of the ballpark.



You can freely move between the upper and lower levels here, with the better concessions down below. The concourses are relatively narrow and rather dated but it was still easy to get around.



The standard fare is available at stands named after their location, such as Snack Home, behind home plate. Of course, this leads to the beverage booth near first base to be called Drink First, a message designed to throw recovering alcoholics off the wagon. The most memorable item was a shrimp and avocado salad dog which I did not try as it looked disgusting. Some of the concession stands had MLB memorabilia above them, including a very old Chisox jersey (below). When walking around, keep your head up, there are a few surprises to be found.



If you want more than just a stadium snack, the third floor has a large food court with 6 choices, including a sushi place that was packed. Judging from the crowd, this would be worth trying but you probably have to arrive just as gates open to ensure a seat.



The third floor also houses the Dragons' Museum, a large collection of memorabilia including the 1954 Japan Series championship plaque. All of the explanations are in Japanese only but it is worth visiting as it is free. It is only open on game days so you do need to buy a ticket to get in.



Overall, this is a decent venue for a dome. I enjoyed the friendly staff and food selection. The seating issues make it difficult to relax. I think only the first row in the upper deck offers a purely unobstructed view among the infield seats, and those tickets can be tough to get. With no unreserved seating area, you'll be stuck with whatever ticket you buy, so be aware of that before going to the ticket window.



The Game



Two top pitchers were starting tonight with Dicky Gonzalez (above) taking the hill for the Giants against ace Kazuki Yoshimi for Chunichi. Things got off to a rough start for Gonzalez, who gave up a leadoff single to Yohei Oshima who was quickly sacrificed to second by Masahiro Araki (below). After Masahiko Morino grounded out, clean-up hitter Takeshi Yamazaki, a 43-year-old veteran, brought Oshima home with a single to make it 1-0 Dragons.



The Giants tied it up in their half of the second when Shuichi Murata led off with a double and scored on Yoshinobu Takahashi's single. Takahashi advanced to second on the throw home, but when the throw went wild, he tried for third. Yoshimi, backing up the play at home, threw to third and Takahashi retreated. Again the throw was too high and Takahashi reversed field yet again, only to be gunned out at third by the throw from left field. The old 9-1-7-5 play if you are scoring at home. The inning ended when Gonzalez grounded out and he must have hurt himself as he was removed from the game after warming up in the bottom of the second. Jumpei Ohno was brought in and took another three minutes to get ready, meaning a seven-minute break between innings.

That still wasn't enough time for Ohno to get loose as he gave up a single to Hirokazu Ibata and then a monster homer to Ryosuke Hirata, his 4th of the young season. After a groundout, Ohno walked Yoshimi and gave up singles to Oshima and Araki to load the bases. That was it for him as Satoshi Fukuda relieved and retired Morino on an RBI groundout before striking out Yamazaki. Two innings were in the books and over an hour had passed. I slumped in my seat, fearing another four-hour marathon, but as it turns out, that was all the scoring.



Yoshimi (above) settled down, giving up a walk and 2 singles the rest of the way, retiring the last 11 batters in a row for the Dragons' first complete game of the season. Fukuda and two other Giants' relievers were equally good, giving up just 2 hits themselves as the final seven innings were completed in just 90 minutes. It was one of the quickest games I have seen in Japan and as the Giants lost, one of the most enjoyable as well.



Notes

The Dragons' mascot Doala (a Dragon and Koala mix I guess) tries to land a running backflip during the 7th-inning break. The team keeps his record of success and failure, so far 2-5. He missed again below.




Best,

Sean

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Tianjin Teda 0 at Nagoya Grampus 0 (AFC Champions League Matchday 4) - April 18, 2012




After watching F.C. Tokyo dismantle Beijing Guoan on Tuesday night, I took the Shinkansen to Nagoya on Wednesday to see another Chinese team visiting Japan in AFC Champions League action. This time it was Nagoya Grampus hosting Tianjin Teda in what was expected to be another win for a J.League side.

Mizuho Athletic Stadium

Grampus plays half of their games at Toyota Stadium, a very cool and modern venue located in Toyota City, which is where the famous car maker also happens to be. Built in 1997, it has a retractable roof and seats 45,000, but unfortunately for local fans, it is nearly an hour from Nagoya. To keep them happy, the club plays the other half of their games as well as their ACL matches at Mizuho Athletic Stadium, which is in Nagoya proper.



This is a much older venue that was built in 1941 and holds 27,000 fans. It is separated into a main stand and a back stand and you cannot move from one to the other. I prefer the cheaper back stand but all seats here are just benches (below), so if you want to sit in relative comfort, it will cost you. My ticket was 3,000 yen, while those in the main stand ran either 5,000 or 6,500 with another small advantage of being covered.



The food is mostly in front of the main gate (below) and there's quite a nice selection as well, with about 8 trucks serving a variety of Japanese dishes. My favourite is the miso kushi katsu, breaded pork dipped in miso sauce (a Nagoya staple). At 3 sticks for 400 yen, it is very reasonable, but you have to eat it quickly before the bread gets too soggy from the miso.



Before halftime, you can exit the seating area and wander outside, so I would recommend that you find a seat in the back stand and then mosey on over to the main gate to get your food.



There is nothing else here really. The Nagoya fans, like all in Japan, are pretty serious and despite a small attendance of 6,006, they made noise all game long. It's too bad they had little to cheer about.



The Game

The two teams met in the previous match in Tianjin and Nagoya won easily 3-0, so I expected another waltz in the park. Nope. Nagoya was missing three top players, including Australian national Joshua Kennedy and Japanese defender Tulio, so they had their work cut out for them. The first half was rather slow and neither team could build any momentum, with the best chance falling to Teda who lobbed one over Grampus goalie Seigo Narazaki (Japan's #1 keeper) only to see it bounce off the top of the bar.



The second half saw Nagoya start to take control and they were rewarded with a penalty in the 13th minute. The Tianjin players surrounded the referee from Hong Kong to protest but it was to no avail. Keiji Tamada lined up the spot kick and sent it wide left (below), much to the chagrin of the locals.



Tianjin used the miss to start their attack and they had a couple of strong shots that Narazaki handled well. As the clock wound down, Nagoya pressed for the winner, spending most of the last 10 minutes attacking the Teda net, but they could not manage to score, wasting two fantastic  chances when their shots missed badly. When the final whistle blew to end the 0-0 draw, the disgruntled fans moaned noticeably but still politely applauded the players when they came to the sideline to bow.



I've never seen a scoreless draw before in all the games I've gone to and I hope that is the last one I have to endure.



Next Up

Tonight I will be at the Nagoya Dome to see the hated Giants and the Chunichi Dragons in Central League action. Tomorrow I'll see the Dragons' minor league team taking on Fukuoka in an Western League match.. These are my last two games in Japan, at least while I live here, so I hope they are more memorable than tonight's snoozefest.

Best,

Sean

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Beijing Guoan 0 at F.C.Tokyo 3 (AFC Champions League Matchday 4) - April 17, 2012


Last year, F.C. Tokyo won the Emperor's Cup, gaining them admittance to the 2012 AFC Champions League competition. This is the Asian equivalent of UEFA's Champions League and although it doesn't rate nearly as highly, it does provide some interesting games for local fans. Tokyo was drawn into Group F along with Australian champs Brisbane Roar, Korean runners-up Ulsan Hyundai, and Beijing Guoan, who finished second in the Chinese Super League last season.

Each team plays the other at home and away over 2 months from early March, resulting in six games each. The midway point was hit two weeks ago with Tokyo and Ulsan leading at 5 points apiece from a win and two draws. Tokyo had visited Beijing then, coming away with a point from a 1-1 result and the return match was held yesterday in Ajinomoto Stadium, a venue I had yet to visit. With time running out on my life in Japan, I decided to take advantage of the midweek contest and headed to west Tokyo to check out both the stadium and the game.

Ajinomoto Stadium



One of the city's hidden jewels, Ajinomoto Stadium was originally called Tokyo Stadium before becoming the first venue in Japan to sell its naming rights. It is located a short 5-minute stroll from Tobitakyu Station on the Keio line, which is about a half-hour west of Shinjuku. The stadium currently hosts F.C. Tokyo in the first division and Tokyo Verdy in J2.



The stadium was opened in 2001 and surprisingly wasn't used in the 2002 World Cup despite holding over 50,000 fans when full. Having two larger stadiums in nearby Yokohama and Saitama was the primary reason for this, but one has to question the logic of building another huge white elephant in the distant countryside of Oita when this would have been more than sufficient. It was the training ground for the Saudi Arabia team that year though and a plaque notes as much just outside the main gate.



As you approach the stadium, you walk up a set of stairs to the main gate, where you will find the ticket windows off to your right. There are two categories of games but ticket prices don't differ by more than 500 yen. My advice is to get the unreserved home seats at 2,500 yen which give you the whole lower deck in the back stand to choose from.



If you prefer the upper deck, it will cost you an extra 1,000 yen, a surprising twist on the usual pricing policy. The benefit of sitting up top is that the entire bowl is covered by the roof, while only the last three or four rows in the lower sections are similarly protected from the elements. This is supposed to be a multipurpose facility and as such, the seating area is somewhat far away from the pitch even though there is no running track currently separating them (below). Most fans prefer to sit in the upper rows of the lower bowl as the angle from down low is not that good.





Before you enter, you might want to wander around the stadium and take note of the countless plants along the walls (below). I don't know why they are here but someone has a tough job watering them. There are also lots of trees in the area including some cherry blossoms trees that were just coming off bloom.



The very spacious concourse circles the outside of the stadium and this is where you will find a decent variety of concessions. Fried food dominates, with a rolled taco one of the relatively rarer finds. At 300 yen, it's not much but it whets the appetite for heartier fare such as the fried chicken and draft beer combo for 800 yen. Avoid the kushiage (deep fried meat on a stick) as they dip it in sauce before giving it to you and by the time you reach your seat, it is a soggy mess. That's too bad because at 100 yen per stick, it would normally be a bargain.



As this was a Champions League game, only 9,537 fans showed up, about half the average for a J.League match here. Unlike Europe where the Champions League is big business, these international club competitions don't get much respect here in Japan, which surprises me. I personally appreciate the opportunity to see a team that I would not otherwise be able to witness live and can't understand why the Japanese think differently.



Despite the low attendance, those supporters who did make it out were loud and proud and kept chanting throughout the game. All of them were wearing the club's signature blue and red striped kit and it made for a cool sight. I'd love to see this place sold out but I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon.



There are video scoreboards at each end that showed replays. Otherwise there is little of note. It is a very nice stadium, but as is often the case here, purely functional, without a lot of bells and whistles.



After the game, your best bet is to head east to the city. There are a few eateries between the stadium and the station but they are generally just chains and not worth your time. Two stops away from Tobitakyu is Chofu, a reasonably-sized suburb that might be interesting if you've seen the rest of Tokyo. For visitors though, Shinjuku is the better destination, with Golden Gai the late night spot if you are of such a mind.



Overall, Ajinomoto Stadium is worth visiting simply because it is a very cool structure. It is certainly too big for its current purpose, but I always enjoy seeing a game where fans are not crammed in like cattle. The supporters here are good and the atmosphere doesn't suffer much with a smaller crowd, so if you notice an FC Tokyo (or Tokyo Verdy) game here when you are in town, make an effort to check it out.


The Game

Tokyo began attacking from the outset and had a couple of quick chances. In the 7th minute, Hyun-Soo Jang was fouled and the free kick was chipped forward from about 25 metres out. Kazuma Watanabe leapt to head it just past a diving Sen Hou and off the inside of the post and into the net (below, Watanabe is #11).



Tokyo continued to press and had a few close calls while the visitors were only able to muster a single scoring opportunity which was easily saved by Hitoshi Shiota.

It looked like Tokyo would maintain their one-goal advantage but they managed to score another during the single minute of extra time. Watanabe dribbled into the box from the right side and lobbed a pass across to a wide-open Yohei Otake who headed the ball into the empty net at the strike of halftime.



That pretty much decided things, but early in the second half, F.C. Tokyo added an insurance marker. After Takuji Yonemoto was stretchered off due to injury, Tatsuya Yazawa came on as a substitute. His fresh legs were evidenced a few minutes later when he received a ball down the left flank and darted across the box, hurdling a tackler (above) and chipping the ball past Hou for the third and final goal of the game (below).



The rest of the affair was of little consequence. Beijing put the ball in the net near the end, but it was correctly ruled a "late" offside. In soccer, there is a rule that you can be offside as long as you are not part of the play. In this case, the eventual scorer was offside when the pass was made to another forward. If that player had scored after receiving the pass, the goal would have been legal, but he passed to the offside man and the flag immediately went up.

A fairly entertaining game for Tokyo fans as their club showed good technical skills throughout the match. With the win, Tokyo move first in the table with 8 points and need just 1 point from their remaining two games to clinch a spot in the quarter-finals. Highlights are here.



Notes

The AFC Champions League has 8 groups with A to D representing West Asia and E to H the eastern part of the continent. Not surprisingly, there are few competitive nations at this level, and both Japan and South Korea have teams in each of the four groups in the east, while China and Australia have 3 teams apiece. A squad from Thailand (who beat J.League champs Kashiwa Reysol last month) and Uzbekistan round out the field.

There was a small group of Beijing supporters, perhaps 50 in all. I felt for them, knowing how painful it is to travel to another country to watch your favourite team only to have them come up empty (this is a reference to my journeys to see the Leafs lose on the road in several NHL rinks).



One of Guoan's players is named Wang Xiaoling. This becomes Wang XL on his jersey. Hey, I never promised to stay away from juvenile humour!



Next Up

I'm in Nagoya where I will see another AFC Champions League game tonight featuring Nagoya Grampus and Tianjin Teda from China. The following two days will see me attend both a major  and minor league Chunichi Dragons game. I'll being updating as usual here before taking a break for the big move, so check back often.

Best,

Sean